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Team Rubicon uses military skills for storm relief

Team Rubicon members along with Duluth volunteers dispose of fallen trees. (Photo submitted)1 / 3
Team Rubicon member Anthony Celani heads out to survey damaged homes. (Photo by Ryley Graham)2 / 3
Team Rubicon sports their team shirts, which every member nationwide wears. (Photo by Ryley Graham)3 / 3

After a natural disaster occurs, but before large organizations are able to provide support to devastated areas, volunteer relief groups such as Team Rubicon often step in to provide damage control. Team Rubicon is comprised of military veteran volunteers who have provided relief to over 180 disasters worldwide. They spent July 30 through Aug. 2 assisting Duluthians stricken by the storm.

"A lot of people don't know that these volunteer disaster relief groups exist if they haven't experienced it," said Cheryl Skafte, Duluth volunteer coordinator. "[Team Rubicon] has knocked out dozens of jobs."

Team Rubicon gets its name from the Rubicon River, which Julius Caesar crossed with his army in 49 B.C., signifying a point of no return. The team adopted the name to indicate their irrevocable commitment to assisting devastated communities, both domestic and international. Team Rubicon started in 2010 as an eight-man mission to provide medical aid in Haiti and has grown over the years into a nationwide nonprofit organization.

"We are growing so we can now go to more places," said team member Lloyd Weema. "We are split up into 10 regions and most operations will be run by people in their region, unless it's huge, then it becomes a national operation."

Duluth lies in region 5 of the nation. The Duluth storm relief mission was labeled Operation Gitche Gumee. On July 29, Rubicon team members within 450 miles of Duluth were called upon to "grab their go bags" and sign up.

The following day, damage assessment and debris removal in Duluth was in full swing. Over the course of four days, the team used a program called "Crisis Cleanup," a website where homeowners can enter their storm damage information, to find jobs to prioritize. "We try to prioritize getting people back into their homes as quickly as possible," Weema said. "We don't do any of the long-term care; we try to bridge the gap by asking what we can do to help people before the larger long-term organizations are able to come."

Although the work that Team Rubicon does is short-term, the effects can be monumental. Disasters come with massive financial consequences. After partial aid from government organizations, it becomes the town's job to come up with the money. In small rural areas, one natural disaster can financially wipe out a town. However, Weema said that if towns keep track of their volunteer hours, it can significantly bring down the cost of reparations.

"We did an operation last year in a small town in Colorado that had about a million dollars per-year budget," Weema said. "But the damage bill that they got was about $14 million. Team Rubicon's work alone got the cost down to $4 million."

While Team Rubicon's work impacts communities, it can also affect the veterans themselves. Team member Anthony Celani said that Team Rubicon really began to expand after Clay Hunt, one of the eight people who traveled to Haiti, took his own life in 2011. He said they then started to see then how Rubicon could give a sense of purpose to veterans who still want to serve their country. Team Rubicon not only bridges the gap between disaster and recovery, but also between military and civilian life.

"You lose your identity when you leave the military," Celani said. "Team Rubicon provides a community and a way to be a part of something."

Outside of working together on operations, the veterans on Team Rubicon are connected through social media. Weema says that when someone needs help, they now have a support system of 20 to 30 people at their fingertips.

"There was a guy who I did a job with last week who recently posted on Facebook that he needed someone to talk to," Weema said. "I never would have guessed."

During their time in Duluth, Team Rubicon was able to visit and assess dozens of houses and help numerous locals with their storm damage. On Monday they enlisted the help of Duluth volunteers to speed up the process, and, despite the rain, had a good turnout. They returned to their homes on Tuesday with the conclusion of operation Gitche Gumee and await the next call to action.